18 October 2016

Review: Munchem Academy, Book 1 The Boy Who Knew Too Much

Munchem Academy, Book 1 The Boy Who Knew Too Much Munchem Academy, Book 1 The Boy Who Knew Too Much by Commander S.T. Bolivar, III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by this book, more because of the subject/topic-matter for this age group than anything else. It's rare to find this topic in middle grade, so I was quite pleased.

At its core, Munchem Academy is just another reform school. But Carter quickly realizes that everything is a bit strange, teachers included, and he's going to get to the bottom of it. Doing so requires him to be a little more heroic than he's used to, and uncover a dastardly plan along the way.

I don't want to give away the big reveal, since it's such a major part of the charm of this, but the twist alone doesn't rescue this from being largely paint-by-numbers in many regards. The similarities to countless books in many ways keep this from being great, but also gooses the appeal to kids who might be more reluctant to branch out a bit. Overall, though, the end picks up better than the beginning, and that lifts it from being okay to being pretty good.

Good for kids looking for a fun creepy story, or who like more supernatural mysteries. Not a lot of adult appeal here.

View all my reviews

13 October 2016

Review: Age of Blight: Stories

Age of Blight: Stories Age of Blight: Stories by Kristine Ong Muslim
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, this book.

A collection of (very) short weird stories, I think my only complaint about it is the overall length, as the collection is only a hair over 100 pages. But within those hundred pages you get great stories about clones, about sea monsters (and the discovery therein), apocalyptic diseases, and so on.

Why is this so great, though? I think there's a reasonable comparison to Kelly Link here, but where Link keeps her tongue firmly in cheek throughout, Kristine Ong Muslim succeeds in perfectly balancing her stories on the line between disturbing and ridiculous. There's enough of the awkward, gross, and strange here to satiate the hunger for strange stories, but it's hard not to giggle at the kid who used to use his tentacle to swing from the bannisters in his house, too.

Overall, I don't know how well known this book is or how easy it is to get it, but if you like weird short stories, you need to get your hands on it. Such a great surprise.

View all my reviews

10 October 2016

Review: Death's End

Death's End Death's End by Liu Cixin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At this point, I think I may have fully and completely been wrong about The Three-Body Problem. That was a book I liked but found very flawed for a lot of reasons, but the sequel, The Dark Forest, blew my mind. Absolutely crazy, and Death's End became maybe my most anticipated read of the fall.

The good news is that the quality of this series doesn't drop. Following the craziness at the end of Forest, we have what ends up being another interesting narrative shift where we slide back and forth between the traditional narrative and some more "primary" references, whether they be writings or reports or stories from the universe. This really kind of helps with the universe building and does a surprisingly good job of fleshing out some of the more complicated ideas. Always a plus. Also, the sense of urgency and despair remains throughout, with some genuinely difficult passages throughout as we race to the end.

The downside? Well, if we want to call it one at all, and if we want to refer to the one thing that keeps this from being as amazing as Forest, it's the book's way out. I have some issues with the way it ended, and I feel like it has too much similarity to another recent series (even though I believe this predates it even though there wasn't an English translation), and it's an ending that sometimes feels a little overdone. Still, I give it credit for trying to have some scientific underpinnings for it, and that's ultimately good enough for me given the journey to the destination.

Still? I think this is ultimately one of the best science fiction series of the last decade. I almost want to go back to Three-Body and see what I ultimately missed from that book because of how great the final two were, and I'm just sad that I can't experience this for the first time again. Hopefully we get more Cixin fiction translated into English soon.

View all my reviews

09 October 2016

Review: Hero of Dreams

Hero of Dreams Hero of Dreams by Brian Lumley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a fairly strange book. Previously unpublished before this volume was put out close to 30 years ago, this is the story of two people who are heroes in a dreamworld they share even though they're perfectly mundane in the real world. The heroics they go through int he dream world have a lot of Lovecraftian angles to them, and go full-blown by the end.

I enjoyed this well enough, but I suppose it's just strange in that the story itself just happens. There doesn't feel like there's a lot of agency to any characters, and perhaps that's intended with the dreamlike state in place for a setting, but so much of the plot is "this happens, and then this happens" that it becomes less about engagement with the characters and more about the overall setting.

I will absolutely keep running with this series, but it's just one of the weirder things I've read recently, and I don't think anyone but hardcore Lovecraft-philes like myself might get much out of it.

View all my reviews

Review: Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living

Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living by Matthias Buchinger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love little pieces of historical esoterica, and I don't use "little" as a play on words when it comes to this look at the life and work of Matthias Buchinger, who was a German artist born with dwarfism but without hands or feet, yet capable of artistic and slight-of-hand feats that are difficult for anyone. Ricky Jay was able to curate an exhibition of Buchinger's work, and this is a companion piece for the exhibition.

It's not significantly detailed, and much of the book is about Jay seeking out and procuring various Buchinger ephemera (interesting in itself), but for what it is, the book is really great. So many reprints of Buchinger are scattered about in the book as well that you get a good grasp as to his craftsmanship and ability first hand, which is often difficult to do in projects like this.

At the end of the day, this felt like a generous taste of an artist I absolutely want to learn more about. Absolutely recommended for those who love art or strange history.

View all my reviews

07 October 2016

Review: Uzumaki

Uzumaki Uzumaki by Junji Ito
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Comics by Junji Ito make the rounds on the internet constantly, and Uzumaki is constantly recommended as a good horror comic/manga, so I finally got a hold of an omnibus release. It mostly meets the standard, but sometimes it's a little off the rails.

The premise is that there is a small town in Japan near a lake that has been cursed. The curse involves spirals. The spirals possess people, they exist everywhere, and things become more and more insane as the spiral curse progresses. The curse takes a lot of forms, and the story unwinds itself in a way that answers a lot of the questions that come up along the way, but not without some seriously gross happenings.

There's always a suspension of disbelief in play when it comes to horror, and this in particular really needs it in a lot of ways. It's less jump scare and more just really gross and awkward, and while we can handle snail people or blood-sucking children, it makes the really absurd even more absurd as a result. This may be where some (lack of) knowledge of cultural and/or manga tropes comes into play for me, but some of the more eye-rolly parts kept me from loving something I really only liked.

I'm still excited to read more from Ito, for sure, and those who like horror and haven't done much in the manga space should absolutely check this out. Just manage the expectations a little bit and it might be more fun as a result.

View all my reviews

Review: Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs

Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I feel like I completely missed the TRL era of MTV, at least in terms of when I watched MTV. The years of N'Sync, Britney, et al were sometime in high school for me, so Dave Holmes is a name I only kind of know. But a friend raved about this book, and so I grabbed it because I sometimes like books like this, and it just worked out really well.

The book follows Holmes as he grows up, goes to school (local to me, at that), gets to MTV, and all the stuff in between. As a gay man, he talks about how his sexuality was handled at his Jesuit college and how it's worked out in the entertainment industry, and there are tons of fun musical and cultural references to fill up the spaces in between.

This is a very light read, but that's not anything negative about the book itself. In terms of a book I could just pick up and put down every so often, it was near-perfect, and Holmes knows how to tell a good story on a whole. I really have no complaints, and I tend to be very critical of memoirs anyway.

Pick this up, especially if you know Holmes or love pop culture. Just a quick, fun, enjoyable read.

View all my reviews

04 October 2016

Review: Hamstersaurus Rex

Hamstersaurus Rex Hamstersaurus Rex by Tom O'Donnell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Closer to a 1.5.

There's a rich tradition in children's books for seemingly absurd premises. The Chocolate Touch, How to Eat Fried Worms to a point, there's a lot of stuff out there that just gets to the heart of the crazy imaginations that kids can have.

That brings us to Hamstersaurus Rex, the story of a classroom hamster that gets into some protein bars and becomes part-T-Rex.


I have to say that this is really, really dumb. Like, really dumb. I love the lowbrow, but the caricature of the gym teacher, the really bad-at-being-a-bully-bully, the Evil Corporate Conglomerate (TM), all of these things mesh together for a story that just doesn't seem to work. There's nothing wrong with dumb books for kids - goodness knows there are enough dumb books and movies and shows for adults - but this one, just... yikes.

Avoid this if at all possible. It should have been better than it was.

View all my reviews

Review: Rebel Genius

Rebel Genius Rebel Genius by Michael Dante DiMartino
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

It's great to see middle grade books going a little darker in some regards, and even to see some tropes refreshed. Rebel Genius will get attention because of the author's association with Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it really should get some points more because of its treatment of the familiar/spirit animal motif.

The setting is sort of a Renaissance-era Europe where artists get Geniuses, a sort of familiar that represents their talents. People with them are persecuted, and so our hero finds an enclave where he's taught how to use his Genius and eventually fight back.

This isn't forging anything resembling new ground, but the use of these ideas along with some little-used concepts (like sacred geometry) make this a more interesting read even while it remains imperfect. More recent books like the Claire/Black Magisterium books do this sort of darkness better, and The Golden Compass remains a gold standard of sorts for the familiars concepts, but that doesn't mean kids, especially reluctant readers who are fans of Avatar, might not find a lot to love in this as an entrypoint.

View all my reviews

27 September 2016

Review: How to Avoid Extinction

How to Avoid Extinction How to Avoid Extinction by Paul Acampora
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I appreciate middle grade books that take some chances. This book, however, maybe took a few too many wrong turns along the way.

The story is mostly a road trip tale, where Leo, a caretaker for his afflicted grandmother, has to go with her on her latest fling many states away. He gets on board with his cousin and they effectively drive cross country with a dog and figure out exactly what Gram needs and keep her safe along the way.

It's a strange read in some regards, but I had some personal issues with the fact that the grandmother clearly has dementia or Alzheimer's and it's played less for the conflict and more for laughs. The story itself isn't the most realistic thing, but we know that going in, and while this adult reader was ultimately unhappy with the payoffs, I'm not sure kids will notice enough compared to a lot of the other things the story has going for it.

It didn't work for me, but it might work for other kids. Worth keeping on your radar, but there are a lot of better options available.

View all my reviews

18 September 2016

Review: Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Probably closer to a 3.5/3.75.

I'm an admirer of Barry Goldwater. While most conservative and/or Republican people my age point to Reagan as the standard bearer and such, Goldwater was much more my speed. Both a product of his time and way ahead of his peers, Goldwater was the presidential candidate in 1964 who lost huge, but ushered in a conservative movement that has largely dominated the American political structure ever since.

This book tells the story of the Goldwater rise, starting from the era of Goldwater's rise to national prominence through the end of the 1964 contest. There is a lot of detail about the sociopolitical situation of the time as well as the explicitly political era from Joe McCarthy to the assassination of JFK. It's ridiculously detailed and provides a pretty strong narrative flow for such a dense history title.

Where this falters a bit is that Perlstein does come in with a bit of an axe to grind. From the subtitle, we understand where he's coming from on this and, while he's more fair than not throughout, there's a lot of incredulity in the text about Goldwater and how he was able to catch fire the way he did. While Perlman is not wrong to highlight a lot of the dysfunction in the campaign, too much of the book does focus on events otherwise unrelated to the time that better fit the Johnson/JFK narrative, and a lot of time is spent with an almost mocking eye toward many of Goldwater's supporters. Maybe the most frustrating parts are things that were known by the time of publication, such as Perlman's dismissal of Joe McCarthy without even recognizing some of the disclosures from the Venona cables. This sort of narrative nonfiction, which has a real Howard Zinn-like quality in many aspects, takes away from the harder history of the overall piece.

I nitpick because I know this era fairly well (although I'm far, far, FAR from an expert) and because this is a widely acclaimed book, with much of the acclaim missing the real problems. The real problems, however, do not overshadow how compelling and detailed a read this ends up being, and there's more than enough rigor here to make this a valuable asset in the overall canon of the political era. I do look forward to reading Perlman's other books, and I hope the other books improve on what's already a good piece of scholarship.

View all my reviews

Review: Whisper to Me

Whisper to Me Whisper to Me by Nick Lake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel like this book is not getting the proper attention for how good this is.

This book has a very unconventional style, but it is about Cassie who wronged her boyfriend and wants to make sure he knows why. She also hears voices, and the voices definitely have an impact on this. This is a stilted, crazed look at a stilted, crazed situation.

This is kind of a love story, kind of a lost love story, but largely a tale about mental illness that's handled in a very interesting and different way. The briskness and the urgency that drive the narrative along made this a read that I basically blew through in less than 24 hours. You both feel a lot of sympathy for Cassie's situation while still allowing her a bit of agency in the situation she's in, and the whole of the story makes for a great read.

It's long, but don't sleep on this book. The alternative narrative style will likely keep your interest even if the book itself takes some time for you, but the overall experience was a huge winner for me and I hope it gets the acclaim I think it deserves. An absolute page turner.

View all my reviews

Review: A Week of Mondays

A Week of Mondays A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know quite how many ways I can state how much I loved this book.

Ellison has a really bad Monday for all sorts of reasons, from school to her boyfriend. She vows that if she could do it again, she'd get it right. The next morning she wakes up and it's Monday again, and she gets the opportunity to set everything straight.

Yes, this is basically Groundhog Day for the teen girl set, but it's so endearing. Ellison is fun and flawed, thoughtful yet impulsive. Her journey as a character is just great from start to finish, and I really felt for her toward the end, which is always a good sign.

This is a light and fun teen book, for sure, but there's also some good messages throughout to provide some added value. But just the fact that this book is such a great ride from start to finish is reason enough to give it a look, especially if you have love for this sort of repeating day story.

View all my reviews

17 September 2016

Review: Family Plot, The

Family Plot, The Family Plot, The by Cherie Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I honestly didn't know how much I wanted a good old fashioned ghost story until I picked this one up. Cherie Priest is best known for her steampunk stuff, and the non-steampunk stuff I've read of hers has been mixed for me, but this really worked.

The story takes place entirely at an estate on a hill in a small town. A family that clears out old estates and resells the contents has been contracted for this house, a house with a bit of a reputation in town of being a little creepy. Still, there's a lot of stuff here and could be a lucrative deal, so they buy and get to work. And then they find something in the back shed, and the fun begins.

This book feels shorter than it is, which is always a good time, even though the mysteries unravel at a slower-than-expected pace. There's a lot of love for the overall tropes here, and I can't help but wonder if the literal deconstruction of the haunted house was somewhat intentional here in its format. The big flaw, however, is how it never fully ramps itself up to a truly exciting climax. The pacing is such where by the time we get to the peak of everything, it's not nearly as impactful as I wanted it to be. As someone who likes the journey more than the destination much of the time, this wasn't a huge problem, but it was just an unexpected way to go.

Still, this was a very fun read for me and one I can recommend even for people who want to try this genre but avoid it due to being scared easily. It's no Nyctophobia, but it's a really solid entry into a tried and true genre.

View all my reviews

13 September 2016

Review: The Memory Wall

The Memory Wall The Memory Wall by Lev A.C. Rosen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was probably about two-thirds through this book that I broke down sobbing on the couch.

My mother has Alzheimer's. I was very close with her, my family moved back home (at great expense both personal and emotional) to help take care of her, and, as I write this, she has been in a nursing home for well over two years after having been given less than half of that to live.

The Memory Wall is about a kid, Nick, having to deal with a similar situation. He's very young and his mother also has Alzheimer's. The family makes a decision that she, too, will go to a nursing home, and the kid doesn't really understand everything that's going on with the medical situation in play. He does, however, know a certain fantasy MMO that he plays quite a bit, and he's convinced his mother is playing it with him from the nursing home.

It's really a heartbreaking story. I can forgive some of the realism aspects of this in what's a challenging story to tell for this age group because it absolutely digs into the emotional struggle that comes with Alzheimer's caregiving. In particular, Nick's denial of what is actually happening and his ways to try and mentally craft how the doctors have it wrong and how his mother will actually come through or recover or however you want to phrase it is extremely realistic (to this day, even though my mother hasn't recognized me for five years and I rarely see her because it hurts so much, I keep thinking, in the back of my mind, that we'll get some phone call that will never come that tells us that she snapped out of it), and the use of a video game construct to literally play out these scenarios us caregivers who struggle to let go is a bit of a genius move.

I could nitpick on a lot of things here and there, but that's not the point. This book succeeds on its emotional core and the harsh realism of accepting the fate of a loved one you can't do anything for. The added helplessness of being a child in this situation is not one I can relate to directly, but will resonate for a lot of readers who might have grandparents in this or similar scenarios. It's closer to a 4.5 because of a lot of the nitpicks, but why bother when this is a book that anyone who has a situation even close to this should read.

Honestly, it's just a beautiful, gorgeous account of a very real struggle. I sobbed because it was perhaps too real for me, but those who can be a little more objective might appreciate it for what it does, if not what it represents. Just an amazing read.

View all my reviews

12 September 2016

Review: Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I tire of professional bureaucracy, so of course I read a book that's pretty much a significant skewer toward it.

A fictional collection of letters that are letters of reference and recommendation to a post, the humor in them are the little tales about each recommended person and the overall frustration of those who have to read and write them.

More sensible chuckle than laugh out loud, the joke sort of gets stale by the time things end, but there are enough pleasant bits throughout to at least make this worth powering through. And at under 200 pages, it's not a huge investment, so it's perhaps worth a look. Especially good if you're into epistolary narratives.

Closer to a 3.5.

View all my reviews

07 September 2016

Review: The Warren

The Warren The Warren by Brian Evenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ah, good old fashioned existential horror.

X is in a bunker of some sort, perhaps the last remaining part of an experiment or maybe just massive hallucinating, but he's been imprinted on and holds lots of old personalities and so on. He's alone, or so he thinks, until someone (or is it something) outside the bunker changes things and makes him question his own existence.

This is a short read, and there's a lot of confusion baked into the narrative to help tie this story together. By the end, you think you've pulled apart all the threads, but the beauty of the narrative is that you ultimately can't be sure and can't trust what you're seeing from point to point. It's done surprisingly well and doesn't feel as if it's just a narrative gimmick. It does take the supposed/possible weight off the ending a bit (or, maybe now that I think more about it, gives it more gravity) depending on how you interpret what's happened, but there's just such an interesting runup that I didn't mind too much.

Overall, though, this is unique enough to stand on its own while still fitting into some of the existential science fiction horror that's come about as of late. Definitely worth the quick read.

View all my reviews

06 September 2016

Review: The Broken Hours: A Novel of H. P. Lovecraft

The Broken Hours: A Novel of H. P. Lovecraft The Broken Hours: A Novel of H. P. Lovecraft by Jacqueline Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I guess it was only a matter of time before Lovecraft himself started winding his proverbial tentacles into the New Weird as a character, but here we are with The Broken Hours, a quiet, creepy affair.

The story is mainly about a man who takes an assistant position in an old house in Providence. He never meets the man he works for, communicating only in letters. The house is believed to be haunted, there is unexplained phenomena throughout, and the book follows these reveals slowly throughout.

The most frustrating part of reading this book is that Jacqueline Baker makes a conscious decision to place all quotes within italics instead, which is something I never got used to and really drew me out of the story instead of perhaps drawing me inward as intended. The result is that the narrative itself, while an interesting, slow burn, feels more than a little stilted as one tries to get back into the tale. Other readers might not have the same issue, though.

There's not a lot of obvious mythos here, and the payoff isn't what I personally expected, but this is still a fun read. Things are just uneasy and creepy enough to keep the reader engaged, and the Providence of this book feels appropriately Lovecraftian (even though people aren't fornicating with the sea monsters as far as we can tell), so there's a lot to love here for those interested in weird fiction or Lovecraft in general. There's just too much here that doesn't quite work that keeps The Broken Hours from being great instead of the very good that it is.

View all my reviews

Review: Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry

Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry by Susan Vaught
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes that one book comes around that inadvertently hits upon a bunch of things you like reading about or can relate to. History, family secrets, the whole package. To distill Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry to only its base components, however, does it a disservice, as this book is really one of the best books for this age group I've read in some time and is a book with weight and importance for all readers.

Dani's grandmother has Alzheimer's, and gives Dani a key to open... something. Dani isn't sure what, but she thinks it could be related to why her grandmother doesn't speak with her old friend anymore and a book on some race riots from the 1960s. The book explores Dani and her friends looking into the key, the riots, and the family mysteries surrounding them.

I'll generally always be on board with kids researching history way above their heads. What I found really interesting is how well the book balanced a very, very heavy topic with the sort of necessary storytelling and appropriateness that comes with navigating this space. Dani's devotion to her grandmother shines through, the racial politics are addressed without being preachy or heavy-handed, the race riots central to the story are described matter-of-factly, and there's a great celebration of research and the proper historical record that is put in play throughout. It's basically pitch-perfect, and I can't think of a negative about this book at all.

Grab a copy of this one. Put it on your shelf, in your library, in your classroom. It deserves a lot of attention for being so solid.

View all my reviews

05 September 2016

Review: Fix

Fix Fix by Ferrett Steinmetz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having now gone through all three of the Mancer books, it's interesting not only to see the growth of the stories, but also how well this ties all the tales together. This is a book about more than just saving the world or saving your daughter, but also has a lot to do with sacrifice, and it's handled in such a great, adept way that it's hard not to consider this one of the better reads of late in this genre.

The book jumps forward in time a bit, and we have our protagonists from the previous books resettled and trying to live a little more normally in spite of the Mancer situation worldwide (given the destruction of Europe and all) (yes, really). Of course, magical powers don't always cooperate as they should, and we quickly run into a plot overrun with kidnapping, a Borg-like collective of magic users, and an amazing run up to what's a really great ending.

I can't really give a ton away, because so much is established by the early books and so much is detailed by the existing plots. The book does work to a point if you're coming in blind, but it's enriched by the knowledge of the previous stories. It makes plotlines with doughnuts funnier and more impactful, it makes some of the major plot points toward the end weightier, and it just makes the whole thing a lot more substantive. The book moves at a solid pace from start to finish, and I just loved the flow of it completely.

No complaints except that this will likely be the last tale for the major players in this story. Flex was great, as was its sequel, but this really brings the series into a solid cohesive unit that's worth a slot on anyone's shelf.

View all my reviews

30 August 2016

Review: Spontaneous

Spontaneous Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spontaneous, at its core, is a book about teenagers spontaneously combusting.

No one quite knows why, and there doesn't appear to be a pattern except that it's happening in a small town. It gets media interest, government interest, scientific interest, but the kids just have to deal with the fact that they're all apparently blowing up in a mess of blood and guts at random times. This is a book about dealing with that reality.

On one hand, there is a bit of "coping with trauma" here that's pretty good, but, on a whole, this book is a little ridiculous and doesn't seem to miss that, but it's also where the charm of the whole story comes into play. While imperfect, there's definitely the survival instincts that kick in, and once they move along a bit toward the conclusion, it does become fairly charming.

Overall, a fun read and closer to a 3.5. Definitely nothing I can recall like it.

View all my reviews

24 August 2016

Review: Red Right Hand

Red Right Hand Red Right Hand by Levi Black
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This has been one of the more hyped-up Lovecraftian titles released in some time, so I had to dive at the chance to read it. My expectations were high because of the hype, and what's not shocking is that it surpassed it, but rather how well it did so.

The story is ostensibly about Charlie, who is attacked by some demons but ends up being rescued by a "Man in Black" with a "red right hand." We quickly learn that her rescuer is a major Lovecraftian god and Charlie, as repayment, must become his acolyte.

There's just so much here to love. The nods to Lovecraftian lore are all over the place here, and it's both respectful and humorous. There's a lot of action, a lot of really creepy stuff, and a couple scenes that even I found genuinely unsettling in a way most novels in this realm simply don't. The writing has a classic quality to it, yet is still paced in a way that keeps the pages turning throughout.

I mean, the horror stuff alone makes this a winner, but the way this entire book is structured makes this an added gem. I wouldn't say it's scary at all, but it's a must read for anyone who has even a passing interest in the Mythos, and, if the modern Weird movement is doing it for you but you wish the writing was a little more straightforward, you'll find a ton to love here.

A great, great read. Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

18 August 2016

Review: Love & Gelato

Love & Gelato Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This isn't the first book that takes place in some time away in Italy, but this is absolutely one of the better ones. A romance that also has some family drama mixed in and some mystery elements, this was a pleasant read.

Lina is in Italy because her late mother wanted Lina to be with her father, a man Lina doesn't really know. Her father takes her in, and is given a journal that her mother kept. This journal begins the process of uncovering a life Lina never knew from her mother, and uncovers some secrets best kept hidden.

This is a very tropey read in many ways, but that sort of comfort, along with the little notes of Italy dropped along the way, results in a pretty fun teen romance on a whole, and one that might have extra appeal to teen girls with family structures similar to this one. If anything, the reveals as the book goes along keeps everything moving tightly and it ends up being a solid, readable affair across the board. Definitely recommended.

View all my reviews

15 August 2016

Review: Them: Adventures with Extremists

Them: Adventures with Extremists Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've noted before my love for weird conspiracy theories and cranks in general. As a fan of Jon Ronson's work up to this point, tripping up on this book where he explores those who believe some of the crazier stuff and where it ends up was a fun ride on a whole.

What's kind of weird reading this now is that it's sort of a pre-9/11 book in a post-9/11 world. Much of the book revolves around a Muslim extremist in London and it's significantly strange to read now following the 9/11 attacks as well as the more recent rise of ISIS. Everyone's favorite crazy person Alex Jones makes an appearance and I realized toward the end that events in this book lead to my first knowledge of Bohemian Grove, and I spent a good amount of time after reading it wondering where this would go in 2016 if it were being written now.

It doesn't feel dated at all outside of the terrorism/Muslim extremist angle, so if you have some interest in the subject you should absolutely dive in. Just a fun, weird, light read.

View all my reviews

Review: The Hatching

The Hatching The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you've been waiting your whole life for a novel about the spider apocalypse, your prayers have finally been answered.

This is a big dumb book about a bunch of carnivorous spiders taking over the world. The writing is functional, the characters one dimensional, the big conflict makes you feel dumber as you read it.

And yet.

Let's be clear - The Hatching is not trying to win any awards, and it's not trying to blow your socks off with some grand narrative or statement. It's a book where spiders are taking over, and you get a sort of Chrichton-esque bounce from scene to scene and group to group as things move along. It's a fast read, and it's fun in the way Sharknado is fun. It's big dumb entertainment.

With that said, this is probably closer to a 3.5 because of how ham-fisted so much of this is. It's so matter of fact that it's almost a problem, and it's perhaps even too dime store pulpy for those who can tolerate it. Perhaps it's a little too self-aware? I don't know, but it was the one major drawback to an otherwise passable book.

You'll know if you're into this pretty quickly. If you are, you'll finish it in basically no time at all, but if your goal is a meatier, more meaningful read, this ain't it.

View all my reviews

Review: The Art of Not Breathing

The Art of Not Breathing The Art of Not Breathing by Sarah Alexander
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The trope of teens dealing with loss in destructive and questionable ways continues with The Art of Not Breathing, a novel that deals with a girl's continuing quest to move on from the drowning death of her twin brother by meeting a dreamy, edgy boy and taking up freediving.

Under normal circumstances, I'd have a ton to say on the matter, but this almost has a paint-by-numbers aspect to it. Take a protagonist, make her lose X to Y, insert Z love interest that exposes her to A activity, and add in a few risky scenes and we're all set. This is a very straightforward, mainstream approach to a well-worn narrative.

The Start of Me and You does this much, much better, and with characters you actually want to root for along the way. This just feels a little melodramatic throughout, but will likely appeal to the readers who are actively seeking books like this. If you're looking for a little more meat, though, you'll have to look elsewhere.

View all my reviews

12 August 2016

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was weird.

I think we need to get that out of the way. It's not weird because it's a play, it's weird because it exists at all, in a sense. There's always a desire for more in-universe stuff in any widely-loved property, Harry Potter being no exception. So a story that comes nearly a decade after what we all assumed was the final book that takes place many many years in the future? Yeah, it's gonna feel a little weird. But if you move past the weirdness, the overall story itself feels very familiar and enjoyable.

The story takes place many years after the events of Deathly Hallows. Harry Potter is a middle aged father, married to Ginny, friends with Ron and Hermoine still, and his son Albus is close with Draco's son, Scorpius. Albus feels a lot of pressure, though, and not just because he's the son of The Boy Who Lived, and, with the help of Scorpius, acts out.

I would stop reading here if you don't want to be spoiled, but it's impossible to not talk about the major plot point here, which involves a stolen time turner from the Ministry of Magic. This time turner is something Albus and Scorpio opt to use to try and change the outcome at the Triwizard Tournament from Goblet of Fire, and what happens is along the same lines of any time travel story where the future is changed in a variety of ways. And, kids being kids, they do it over and over again.

The point of all the setup comes about in the final quarter of the story, and that's likely the best part and the part that feels the most "true" to the overall series. Yes, we get the humor and heroics back, but so much of the book/story spends so much time re-establishing who these characters are that it's just somewhat jarring. And, if we're being really brutal, it's very fanfictiony. I don't know if any Potter fan has tried to have a detailed conversation about Potter that doesn't end up talking about time turners and why they never used them throughout the series, but this essentially tries to answer that question and it's... kind of silly.

Still, though. It's more Harry Potter. And it's very good. Maybe better than the worst parts of the overlong books late in the series, but as an inessential tacked on piece of work, I don't think it was bad unless you have really, really high expectations for the results of this. It's also worth remembering that this is a play, thus meant to be performed. The lack of seeing a performance on this might mean missing some of the flow of nuance that would have made this a better experience otherwise.

Still, though, I flew right through this. It was a pretty enjoyable read even with my share of nitpicky issues throughout. I could complain about the changes in the characters, but I know I'm not the same as 35 as I was at 17. I could complain about going back to the well a few too many times, but this is meant to be fanservice in a way. So enjoy it for what it is, but maybe set your expectation bar a little lower than you might have wanted.

View all my reviews

Review: The Ravickians

The Ravickians The Ravickians by Renee Gladman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5, would have been a 5 if not for the rather flawed ending.

For all the books I've read that deal with new or mysterious or different places, I can't really think of one that attempts to evoke the experience of just being in one of those places. The Ravickians does this, and does so in a way that was one of the more compelling recent reads I've had as of late. The first book, Event Factory , had a strange outsider perspective, but most of this book takes place from the perspective of a citizen of Ravicka, the result being one that really brings about the feel of a city in transition as opposed to a lot of detail.

This book was great until the last third, where it devolves into an experimental piece of sorts that, while intended to give a deeper feel of things, resulted in my being taken completely out of the setting entirely. A lot of this is "what I wanted" as opposed to what it is, but this story, longer than either other volume that bookends up, didn't really need the diversion.

Still, this is a middle book that feels independent. It's a group of books that are really different and interesting in and of themselves. I can't wait to pick up the final volume.

View all my reviews

09 August 2016

Review: Marvelry's Curiosity Shop

Marvelry's Curiosity Shop Marvelry's Curiosity Shop by John Brhel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Growing up, like many kids, I had an affinity for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, complete with their creepy illustrations and stuff teachers hated. I know they rebooted them a few years back, and I don't know if they're still as crazy popular as they were in my classes, but they occupy a very firm spot in my memories.

Marvelry's Curiosity Shop bills itself as a collection of strange tales all centered around supernatural items sold from his shop. By the third story in, I couldn't help but think how much it reminded me of Scary Stories in that the self-contained tales had a similar, classic structure to them and they weren't scary as much as strangely comforting from a nostalgic standpoint to somewhat unsettling in some other places.

The pacing and length of the individual stories are a strength, and, truly, the best story is the last one in the collection, but if there's a flaw to the overall collection, it's that it doesn't feel as if the book knows what it wants to be. If it went all-in on a nod to its inspirations, that would be one thing, but some tales are kind of silly and others maybe a little too far from a tonal perspective in terms of horror/macabre tropes. This imbalance keeps the book from being everything it could be.

Overall, though, this was a fun collection on a whole. If you put on your nostalgia glasses and put yourself back in fourth grade for a bit, you'll definitely find some enjoyment in it even if you tend to like things a little darker these days.

View all my reviews

05 August 2016

Review: The Marvels

The Marvels The Marvels by Brian Selznick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A 3 for the story, a 5 for the art/presentation.

This is a multigenerational story at its core surroudning a family of actors and a kid who is uncovering the mysteries of his family's past. This is common ground for Selznick, who again uses hundreds of pages of illustrations with a text story in the middle, much like Hugo Cabret and Wonder Struck.

The way he structured the story felt more organic than in his previous books, to its credit, but the issue I had overall was how relatively thin the actual story was. I was more invested in the artwork than the actual story it was telling, and the text portions ultimately felt more like placeholders to get to the end.

I wouldn't *not* recommend this to anyone, as Selznick is a master at what he does. I was just more wowed by his previous work and I ultimately don't feel as if this holds up quite the same way. Part of it might just be the subject matter, but so much of it felt like a retread that the core of the tale didn't ring the same way.

View all my reviews